The Mechanisms Undermining Your Leadership Position

As soon as you move into a position of leadership your relationship with others will change. Your (new) team members and those you report to will place who you are and what you do under a magnifying glass. And so will you! The pressure is on. You want to do well. “Don’t mess this up!” 

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That pressure most likely will trigger your defense mechanisms. 

Messing up makes, most of us feel vulnerable and miserable. Depending on the person you are, the history you bring and the culture you are operating in, messing up can have many faces. But it will sure fire you ‘fear thought pattern’: it could be the fear of making mistakes, not being good enough, not being worth it or having the feeling of being an imposter ready to be uncovered. 

Over the years you have carefully constructed mechanisms to prevent yourself feeling the vulnerability and discomfort that are the result of messing up. The defense mechanisms you constructed might express themselves in being distant, overly confident, shying away from making a critical decision or speaking out in a team or during conflict. Or you might take work home or stay in the office late to make sure things are done “right”. All of them not contributing to your own well-being, that of the people you work with or the quality of your work 

Performing well is all that matters

This is exactly what happened to a young leader after she took a leadership position in her team. This gifted young woman was taught from a young age that performing well was important. Failure or discomfort was not a topic easily discussed in her family so she learned to dig in and move on. 

Changing into a leadership position in the organization she noticed that her new role triggered her fear thought patterns: “Am I good enough for this?” “Am I bothering people when I ask them to do things?” “Do people take me serious?” As a result she held herself back, was unable to move forward under pressure, was stressed and exhausted and had trouble letting work go when she was at home.

She came to me for help. 

Know how you show up under pressure

As you can see she was well aware of her fears and her defense mechanisms. But having awareness is not enough to change that into more effective behavior. You have to become familiar with what is and start practicing what you want to become. 

By working through somatic exercises relating to her day-to-day interactions she began to recognize how her defense mechanisms manifested. Once we identified her reactions under pressure, we started to experiment with alternative, different ways to hold her self. We practiced actions relating to what she was looking for in her leadership role - openness, boldness, making decisions and leaving work at the office. She experienced how different postures, intentions and actions would affect the way she felt in a particular situation. This provided her with a concrete awareness in her body and specific actions that she could practice and experiment with at work.

Making your nervous system feel at ease

In our 5thsession she reported the following: “Over the last few weeks it has become easier to feel my body. I feel more peaceful and powerful. I can take up my space, really feel the room around me and be present in it. I notice that I lead with more ease and it feels more natural, though at the same time a little unfamiliar.” 

And then she gave the perfect example of her defense mechanism at play: “To feel more open I imagine a circle surrounding me. That really helps and I experience more freedom and relaxation. But when I am honest I have to say that I also use the circle as a protection.”

This makes sense from a somatic perspective. The way her nervous system has learned to limit the risks of not being good enough, not being a bother to others or not being the perfect match was by holding herself back, shutting down under pressure and trying really hard. Consciously sensing the space around her enabled her to practice more openness and boldness. Although it made her feel good and gave her confidence, her nervous system was not totally “convinced” yet that this new approach was going to work. Letting go of the beaten tracks needs time and practice. So for the moment it put up a new safety measure: the outer border of her imagined circle! 

Stretching the edges

The next step will be to explore the border of the circle to find out what it is protecting. Step by step she will teach her nervous system to be comfortable on a new level, growing towards a leader that is standing tall despite her vulnerabilities.

Do you want to grow in your leadership position and bring your personal qualities to the task? Keep the following things in mind:

  • Your new leadership position will most likely put you under more pressure. That might trigger your defense mechanisms, which do not always serve you or your team.
  • Be open to exploring how your defense mechanisms and the underlying fears show up in your actions and the way you hold yourself.
  • Create a clear picture of how you would like to hold yourself and show up in your interactions with others start practicing that in your body. If you need to, find a role model and observe the way that person holds herself and acts when the going gets tough.
  • Once you smooth out one hurdle, there will be another one as the pressure increases. Enjoy the ride and your ability to continue learning and growing! 
  • It’s all about experimenting and practicing. Keep in mind that it will be an ongoing process that will bring you, step by step, to a higher level in your leadership skills.


Do you notice your defense mechanisms getting activated and undermine your leadership position? Contact me to explore how you can stretch your edges!


Karin Karis

Karin Karis helps people, teams and organizations in sync. She is bestselling author, leadership consultant and executive coach. Her approach: self-awareness starts with body-awareness. Karin is expert in the field of embodiment and somatics. Learning with the body as the frontline. She believes that by changing the workplace we can change the world. 'By changing how we act in the world, we change the connection with ourselves and others.'

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